Thanks for the memory!

On Tuesday I’ll be doing a presentation at the IATEFL Global issues/Creativity group pre-conference event in Birmingham. The title of my talk is Creativity and Memorisation: finding the links. As a teacher and teacher trainer, this has been an area of interest of mine for a long time, and it’s something that I thought about a lot when I was writing Memory Activities for Language Learning.

In my talk I’m going to be focussing on the conflict that exists between teacher training programmes and exam systems in many parts of the world. As I see it,  the importance of fostering creativity in language learners is something which is increasingly emphasised with new teachers, and yet the majority of the world’s language learners are working towards tests and exams which heavily prioritise memorisation and learning by heart. Are these two learning activities at opposing ends of a spectrum, or are they actually more closely linked than we might think?

We tend to think of creativity as being about production of language: writing a story, composing a song, or improvising. But could it be that creative processes are also involved in the storage of language, in committing language to memory. The late, great Earl Stevick (1993) certainly saw a powerful connection between creativity and memory.

  ‘Our imagining equipment is intimately associated with our remembering equipment…In order for this wonderful equipment to serve our students best, we need to provide occasions for its use..and some kind of distinctive, meaningful response to what imagination has produced.’

Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies (Earl Stevick 1993)

One group of people who work very much within these two realms of creativity and memory are actors. What kinds of creative processes do they employ when learning the lines of a play? Noice and Noice’s (2006) research found that using movements and physical gestures which were appropriate to the meaning of the line at the time of memorisation really helped the line to stick. Interestingly it was not always necessary to retrieve the movement in order to retrieve the line that it corresponded to. This indicates that imagination is also being activated: to retrieve the lines effectively actors are linking the words in their minds to movements, to existing knowledge, to their meanings, and to their emotional value. They’re not just consuming the lines – they are making them their own through creativity.

Of course these processes doesn’t just apply to professional actors, they also apply to children performing plays or telling stories that they’ve memorised in class. I think you can see them happening in this video of Sally in Beit-Hanoun, telling the traditional Palestinian story of Tunjur! She’s learnt it by heart, but it’s also very much her own creative interpretation of what she has memorised, and my guess is that, because of this, it will stay with her for quite a while.

What is the long term impact of learning the lines of a story or a play? Will it help the learner when it comes to taking their exams years later? Is it a way of building up a bank of language that can be retrieved when needed for communication?

Twenty five years ago I took part in a community play in a swimming pool in Herning, Denmark. Though it makes me cringe to watch this short clip now, especially for my strong English accent, my limited acting skills and my haircut :-), I really do remember it like it was yesterday. Here’s the final scene where I had to dive into the swimming pool, swim underwater, defeat the black baron, be offered the throne, and then finally refuse it and sail away. This was certainly a very memorable experience for me and it’s interesting  how after all this time I can still remember so many of the lines. I wonder if by doing plays with our learners in class we are providing them with experiences that they will remember a long way into the future. What do you think?



Noice, H and Noice, T (2006) What studies of actors and acting can tell us about cognitive functioning; Current Directions in Psychological Science

Stevick, E (1993) Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies; Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching

5 thoughts on “Thanks for the memory!

  1. It is said that some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. However, this definitely has nothing to do with you. Your creativity and great ability in acting, storytelling and teacher training didn’t come out of nothing.
    It seems that you spared no effort to get to what you are at now.
    No wonder why school kids and adult learners have such amazing intimacy and good terms with you.
    As to your question whether doing plays with learners will give them memorable experiences or not. I think it is not only limited to plays. What I know is that it is related to anything lovable to learners.
    For instance, one of my school teachers at 7th grade used to tell us a verse from the holy quran at the beginning of each class with its explanation then he began his class.
    Another teacher used to tell us short stories in English if we remained silent and caused no trouble in his class.
    This was about 20 years ago and I do still remember them and memorise some lines of what they told us, too.
    However, this doesn’t make little of the importance of doing plays with learners.
    I did help 8th graders momorsie and act a story and that was a couple of months ago but they still have the ability to do it now as if it is learnt at once, and I am sure they will be able to act it the same way some months or years later and this is because they loved and lived the scenes of it.
    In short, if you love what you do, you will never forget it.


    1. Thanks Samir. Like you there were lots of things like poems and songs that I had to memorise at school which are still somewhere in my brain today. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be doing or where I put my phone but somehow I can always remember those!

      I think you’re right about the importance of motivation in making things memorable too. So maybe what we should keep in mind as teachers is how can we give our learners a memorable experience in our classes every day?


      1. Definitely, it really is important to give our learners a memorable experience and as you said, nowadays we tend to forget mostly everything even the place where we are putting our stuff but it seems easy to remember stuff that happened long long ago.
        Therefore, teachers must stress and concentrate on lovable and simple things that learners love doing.


  2. Hi Mr Nick
    As we know ,they are people who are talented by nature.This doesn’t mean that we can neglect others. There is a type of learners who are waiting for somebody to discover their hidden skills. And this is our roles as teachers.This as you suggested to involve learners in plays.why not?. If we engage them in plays, songs,chants or storytelling , this makes them more exposed to language. They may write their own stories and theatre script.I think this is what we look for, we want learners aquire the language for life not fot test or exam.
    In my opinion , if learners like what they act or sing ,it will stay with them forever,for example, two months ago my normal class with all levels of achievers sang ” the jackal and the crow “chant and you saw how enthusiastic they were. This is because they liked what they did.On the other hand , in a normal period they couldn’t answer about simple things.
    Last semester my students scted a short play about the four seasons, today they acted it as it was yesterday.So if the learners like their teacher☺, they will like the material and the messions assigned to them and they will memorise this for long time.


  3. Thanks Sahar. Yes I agree that the relationship between the teacher and the students is so important and, from the online sessions I’ve done with your classes, I can see that you have a great one with yours. You’re also doing a lot I can see to make sure that everyone is involved and engaged, irrespective of their level of English. You’re right too I believe that doing a play is far more than just preparing students for an exam – it is putting English into their lives in an important and very memorable way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s